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Rocky Economy Threatens PGA Tour

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
President George H.W. Bush - Curtis Strange
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Curtis Strange (right) with President George H.W. Bush. (Courtesy of the PGA of America)

With golf soaring to its greatest popularity in history, and its TV ratings passing even baseball and football, PGA Tour officials rubbed their hands gleefully last July when they put together a new television package worth nearly $1 billion. Now it appears the road ahead, which seemed a path of gold, could be a bumpy one.

With the economy hard hit since the terrorists' dirty work on September 11, corporate advertising and promotion budgets have been slashed substantially in almost every business sector.

When the PGA Tour salesmen hit the road in the weeks ahead to renew sponsor contracts, they must be prepared for some sad stories. The demographics of the growing golf TV audiences have been extremely attractive to many of the nation's largest corporations - auto makers, financial institutions, airlines and other segments of business hit hard in the downturn. They may not be ready to snap at the offer to renew for another four years at highly inflated rates.

There already are reports that Advil will be pulling out of the Western Open, and Air Canada also will depart as titled sponsor of its event. Canon, long time Greater Hartford Open sponsor, also will be missing next year and there could be serious questions about Buick's willingness to continue to underwrite three events a year on the tour.

If the economy continues to plummet and sponsor dollars dry up, we could see a fire-sale price on the TV time slots, and that would be bad news for the viewer. To meet the cost of rights, networks would have to schedule more commercial spots and cut into the tournament action. And we all know what that would be like.

Talking of golf on television, there appears to be an ever-increasing wave of applause for Curtis Strange's excellent commentary. Some of the appreciation should spill over to the networks for their wise decision to put some of the leading players behind the mike when their playing days wind down. While some of them don't have the modulation of the trained professional sports commentator, they bring the experience of having been in the situations they are describing to the audience. And that makes a big difference.

This is what makes Strange so easy to listen to. He doesn't hit you over the head with his know-how. Indeed, he has an economy of words, delivered in an appealing tone, with controlled excitement and enthusiasm in the right places. His anecdotal fill-in makes you feel as if you're one of the boys out there on the tour. The Virginian is one of the best of the growing number of semi-active players currently doing the TV gig. Of course, this is but a portion of the Curtis Strange success story. He has faced and overcome adversity and challenges since he was a teenager. To begin with, his father, a golf pro who taught Curtis and his twin brother to play, died in his early forties.

This tragic loss was deepened when the family had to give up the Virginia Beach Golf course in which his father had invested rather substantially. But the family fought back. Curtis' mother returned to the bank job she held prior to her marriage and Curtis earned a golf scholarship at Wake Forest.

He piled up a long list of amateur and collegiate titles, including the NCAA championship in 1974, and he helped Wake Forest rule as the dominant school in college golf. When he turned pro in 1976 it was apparent he had the game for the tour and he put together a glittering record over the next 15 years. This included back-to-back U. S. Open championships in 1988 and '89, and leading money winner honors in 1985, '87 and '88.

Needless to say, his brilliant playing record gives him instant credibility behind the mike. The fact that he currently is captain of the U. S. Ryder Cup team doesn't hurt either. He'll carry that title until the postponed event is played in 2001.

I interviewed Curtis, who is now 46, for a full-blown magazine piece in his early years on the tour, and there wasn't a clue that the young man in front of me would become a popular and successful sportscaster one day. Sure, he was intelligent and articulate, but he was also a bit on the shy side. He spoke softly and his answers were concise. But most of all, he was likable and friendly. As a matter of fact, they're the things I like about him today.

Here's to you, Curtis!

The first meaningful verdict is in on the ambitious renovation of the Augusta National, and the big hitters will be delighted. The venerable Georgia club, like many others with classic courses, opted for alterations in its layout to keep up with the inroads of new technology in clubs and balls and the golfers' new concerns with fitness and strength. Scores at the Masters in recent years - especially those by Tiger Woods - have been an embarrassment to the proud members.

The club, which always reaches for the best in all its pursuits, brought in Tom Fazio, the game's top-ranking designer and adjuster, to do the job. From its earliest days, Augusta was one of the game's finest tests, but after 1997, when Tiger shattered records with his 18-under assault, the course was losing respect. Fazio's job was to toughen it.

He gave it some additional length - about 300 yards - to bring it to 7,270. Much of the extra yardage was used to make the 18th more challenging and a better finishing hole, but there were few areas that didn't get Fazio's masterful touch. He cut down trees, planted new ones, changed the shape and depth of bunkers. The overall aim: more accuracy off the tee.

Woods was joined by his Florida neighbor and good friend, Mark O'Meara, for the sampling of the changes and reports out of Augusta indicate they reached the same conclusion: "The longer hitters who are driving it well will have a big advantage."

Woods thought it might be two or three strokes tougher. O'Meara underscored that by adding that he was glad he'd won his Green Jacket in 1998.

A larger vote will be cast on Fazio's work when the azalea and redbud bloom in April.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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